Camo is ubiquitous in the Midwest. (Photo by Suzanna de Baca)
I did not grow up in a serious hunting family, but I married into one. Early on, I learned that for hardcore hunters, the time between October and December is sacrosanct. And for true devotees, the rituals of the season start much earlier: getting licenses in order, target practice, and shopping for gear – all in a cloud of camouflage.
For years, I have been mystified by the appeal of camo. When my bow hunter husband bought me a puffy camo print winter coat many years ago, I rolled my eyes and stuffed it in the closet. Not my style.
But now camo is ubiquitous in the Midwest. Enter any sporting goods store or superstore, and it’s like walking into camo-land. The familiar khaki and olive patterns appear on clothing, hunting gear, coolers, sheets, blankets and even furniture. And it’s not just for hunters. Cars, trucks, all terrain vehicles, and children’s bikes are wrapped in camo, and women’s fashions increasingly incorporate the look in a cacophony of nontraditional colors.
I’ve always wondered why camo is so popular, so I did some digging. I discovered that whether most hunters and consumers realize it or not, camo as we know it is relatively modern and is largely a marketing phenomenon. Which got me thinking that like all fashion, camo communicates something important about who we are and our culture at large.
The origin of the word camouflage is from the Italian camuffare (to disguise or deceive) and the French camoufleur (to disguise). Camouflage occurs regularly in nature; it is a defense system animals or organisms use to disguise themselves by changing their physical appearance. Think of the coloring of chameleons, pufferfish, zebras or lions blending into their natural environment, allowing them to hide from their predators.
While it is logical to think humans would adopt this clever survival trick, humans did not use camo print for warfare or hunting throughout most of western history. Warfare was conducted face to face and hand to hand, with soldiers wearing armor or uniforms that physically protected them and clearly distinguished them from their enemy.
It wasn’t until the invention of the modern rifle in the mid-1880s that military forces began to employ specific garb to disguise themselves. Khaki was introduced in the mid-19th century, when British soldiers in India began dyeing their bright white uniforms in tea to reduce the visibility of the troops against the landscape. I found the tea tidbit especially delightful.
Camo evolved during World War II, as airstrikes and long-range artillery expanded the field of fire and created new needs for visual deception. French fine artists – called camoufleurs – were hired by the French army to paint patterns to conceal equipment. Upon stumbling onto this fact, an image of Cubists in jaunty berets employing brushwork on giant tanks stuck in my mind. Soon after that war, various branches of the military began mechanically printing patterns on fabric, and the adoption of camouflage — both the word and the pattern — persisted in subsequent wars.
It was not until the 1970s that camouflage was developed specifically for hunting. A Virginia schoolteacher named Jim Crumley became fascinated with the idea of adopting military concealment tactics to improve his effectiveness at hunting. Crumley experimented with printing various patterns on basic clothing. His company, Trebark, introduced a line of camo apparel in 1980, launching an industry.
Hunters quickly gravitated toward the various types of camo, with patterns tailored for region and for species: Woodlawn, Brush, Waterfowl/Marsh, and Snow/Winter. Today, Trebark, Realtree, and Mossy Oak are retailing behemoths in an industry representing billions of dollars in global sales.
When I mentioned this timeline to my husband, he challenged the facts, arguing that camo for hunting started much earlier. But when pressed, he couldn’t recall his dad ever wearing camo, and he remembered hunting in jeans as a kid. It just seems like camo has been around forever.
The explosion in camouflage clothing in the late 1980s and 1990s is variously attributed to an uptick in hunting and the growth of media. A resurgence of wild turkeys and growth in the white tailed deer population helped to create a boom in hunting.
Simultaneously, new television channels and the introduction of video into media and the internet allowed camouflage producers and marketers to flood the market with imagery of successful hunters clothed in patterned products, posing triumphantly with their trophy kills. The effectiveness of wearing or using camo to improve hunting results has never been scientifically proven, but hunters kept buying.
After the Gulf War in the 1990s, camouflage in civilian clothing began to gain in popularity. Designers like John Galliano and Anna Sui added camo patterns to golf clothing and the trend took off. Today, camo patterns can be found in pink and blue and neon, from haute couture to Crocs. In fact, Balenciaga just wowed on the runways of Europe with a camo print Croc. Over the last decade, vehicle and retail manufacturers have piled onboard the camo juggernaut.
Who are we when we wear or display camo? For hunters, even if camo is not proven to fool the wild game, it is part of preparing for the hunt. With any ritual – baptism, communion, marriage, funerals – special garb clothes us for transformation; buying, packing, and donning multiple camo print garments is part of the process of turning from mortal into hunter, an individual with a different mindset – ready for the kill. And wearing any common uniform bands a group together, and connects a person to an activity or an identity.
I asked my husband about the bonding and the ritual of hunting and camo. Not surprisingly, his response was that he and his brothers and buddies just wear camo because it helps them hunt better. How, I asked. It disguises us from the deer, he said.
What about the blaze orange vests you all wear, I asked — doesn’t that kind of ruin the disguise? Good point, he laughed. He shook his head at the ritual part, saying: It’s just hunting. But you go through the same process every single season, preparing meticulously, wearing the same clothing as each other, right? Being a man of few words, he nodded, which I took as agreement.
Hunting aside, what does it say about us as a society or as a region that we have adopted camo into civilian life with such gusto? Does it signify that we identify with the military or hunting? Is it about patriotism or protection — consciously or unconsciously? That we belong or want to belong to a tribe or a like-minded community?
From its origins in nature, the military, and hunting, the concept of camo is to disguise, to deceive an enemy or foe. At its very core, camo patterns signify something primal, part of a cycle of life and death. But with our camo obsession, it is unclear – are we trying to blend in or are we trying to stand out?
Or do we just like the pretty patterns?
Sometimes, when it is particularly cold, I pull out the down-filled camo puffer coat to run errands. I fit right in here in the Heartland. And it doesn’t even feel ironic anymore.
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